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CongressWhite House

Schiff: Nunes can't lead Russia probe and be a Trump surrogate

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has risked undermining the credibility of the panel's investigation of Russian interference of the 2016 election by sharing new information with the White House, his Democratic counterpart said Wednesday.

By briefing the public and then President Trump about intercepted communications involving members of the transition team, but not other members of the committee involved in the probe, Nunes cast "quite a profound cloud over our ability to do our work," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) told reporters.

"The chairman will either need to decide if he's leading an investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both," Schiff said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The assessment, even if delivered in Schiff's typically understated fashion, reflected a potential breakdown in what is traditionally a nonpartisan partnership between the top Republican and Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

It was all the more striking given that both men have served together for more than a decade in the same state congressional delegation.

Schiff said he raised his concerns directly with Nunes after the Republican disclosed new information publicly and then to the White House. He stopped short of saying whether Nunes was improperly making classified information public, saying instead that his actions were "beyond irregular."

Nunes' actions further demonstrated the need for an independent inquiry into Russia's actions during the campaign, Schiff said.

"We're the only investigation there is. If we don't do it, no one is going to do it," Schiff said. "Now, perhaps the White House would like it that way. But the American people, I think, want there to be a credible investigation. And if we're not going to conduct it, then we need to have an independent commission do it."

Trump says he feels 'somewhat' vindicated by spying revelations from Rep. Devin Nunes

 (Erik S. Lesser / EPA)
(Erik S. Lesser / EPA)

President Trump said he felt "somewhat" vindicated by revelations from the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that U.S. intelligence agencies may have picked up communications involving members of his transition team late last year.

While the intelligence reports do not back up Trump's unsubstantiated claim that former President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, they apparently show that Trump and his associates may have been named in classified reports circulated in the weeks before Trump took office, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) told reporters Wednesday.

Nunes visited Trump at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to tell him about dozens of intelligence reports from the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency he had seen. He said he reports included information about communications by Trump and those working for him in the transition.

The surveillance appears to have been conducted with legal authorizations, Nunes said, and the Trump team was not the intelligence target. 

But Nunes said he was uncomfortable that intelligence officials were circulating reports that identified people close to Trump, or perhaps the president-elect himself, without having a clear foreign intelligence justification.

"What I've read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team," Nunes said outside the West Wing.

When asked by a reporter whether he felt vindicated by what Nunes had said, Trump said: "I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found," Trump said.

Nunes told reporters at the White House that intelligence officials had brought the information to him "through the proper channels," and he is concerned that some of the information collected may not have been handled properly.

When asked whether what he found meant that Obama ordered phones in Trump Tower to be wiretapped, as Trump had alleged, Nunes said simply: "That never happened."

CongressWhite House

Top Democrat on House Intelligence panel has 'grave concerns' about handling of Trump team intercepts

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said in a statement he had "grave concerns" about revelations made Wednesday by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).

Nunes told reporters that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring foreign targets hd incidentally heard communications involving members of the Trump transition team and that reports about those communications were disseminated around the government.

Nunes is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and Schiff is the panel's ranking Democrat.

Schiff called Nunes' decision to talk to the media and the White House -- before speaking to him and the rest of the committee -- a "profound irregularity."

Here is Schiff's statement:

"This afternoon, Chairman Devin Nunes announced he had some form of intercepts revealing that lawfully gathered intelligence on foreign officials included information on U.S. persons, potentially including those associated with President Trump or the president himself. If accurate, this information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been. Indeed, it appears that committee members only learned about this when the chairman discussed the matter this afternoon with the press. The chairman also shared this information with the White House before providing it to the committee, another profound irregularity, given that the matter is currently under investigation. I have expressed my grave concerns with the chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.

"As to the substance of what the chairman has alleged, if the information was lawfully gathered intelligence on foreign officials, that would mean that U.S. persons would not have been the subject of surveillance. In my conversation late this afternoon, the chairman informed me that most of the names in the intercepted communications were in fact masked, but that he could still figure out the probable identity of the parties. Again, this does not indicate that there was any flaw in the procedures followed by the intelligence agencies. Moreover, the unmasking of a U.S. person's name is fully appropriate when it is necessary to understand the context of collected foreign intelligence information.  

"Because the committee has still not been provided the intercepts in the possession of the chairman, it is impossible to evaluate the chairman's claims. It certainly does not suggest -- in any way -- that the president was wiretapped by his predecessor."

CongressObamacareWhite House

GOP healthcare bill in serious jeopardy as dozens of Republican lawmakers withhold support

The Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare hit serious trouble Wednesday, with more than 30 GOP House members -- more than enough to sink it -- refusing to back the proposal.

With the vote count looking uncertain at best, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) now must decide whether to push forward with plans to vote on Thursday or put it off to allow more time for negotiations.

The White House stepped up its efforts to sway resistant lawmakers, including meetings with President Trump and other officials.

So far, however, those appeals appeared unable to sway enough votes for the bill to gain a majority. Assuming that all the chamber's Democratic members vote against the bill, Republicans can afford to lose 21 from their ranks.

The White House insisted, though, that Thursday's vote was on, setting up a potential showdown with opponents.

"If you want to see Obamacare repealed and replaced, this is the vote, this is the time to act," said Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer. "There is no Plan B," he said.

Republican hold a majority in the House and Senate but lawmakers have struggled to agree on legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. Many conservatives say the bill doesn't go far enough to repeal Obamacare, while some centrists fear it goes too far and will deprive too many people of health coverage.

Conservatives claimed they have the votes to defeat the measure.

"We easily have enough votes -- with a buffer -- to kill this legislation unless it's substantially improved," Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said as he emerged from a private meeting of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Caucus members appeared unmoved after a lengthy meeting at the White House with Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials, including White House advisors Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.  

"We still haven't seen the movement we want," Rep. Scott  DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) said afterward.

Brooks dismissed the session as a "rah-rah" meeting.

"It's 'we really need you to help. It's a part of a team effort. This is part of a sequence of events,' those kinds of things, when really what we need is a healthcare bill that's going to lower premiums for the people of America."

Trump didn't appear to do much better. The president met with 10 reluctant lawmakers brought in by the GOP whip's team to win their support, and he met the day before with members of the more centrist Tuesday Group.

"I don’t know that anybody changed their mind," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a co-chairman of the Tuesday Group.

"I went into the meeting with serious reservations about the bill, and I still have serious reservations about the bill," Dent said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said the president was very engaged and asked a lot of questions.

"There were people with concerns in there, and as they voiced them, he did everything he could to address them," said Kinzinger, who was also in the Tuesday Group session.

"It’s obviously a huge, deep issue, so I don’t know if anybody was swayed."

Conservative opponents are demanding, among other things, legislative language that would undo requirements for the level of benefits that insurers have to provide. Such rules are too restrictive, and looser policies would reduce insurance premiums, they argue.

At the same time, more moderate Republicans are worried that too many of their constituents will lose access to care because of the bill's rollback of coverage under Medicaid, the safety net program for low-income, disabled and older Americans.

Other Republicans are also concerned that they are being asked to vote on changes to the bill without updated analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Earlier this month, the budget office said that the number of Americans without insurance would rise by as much as 24 million over the next 10 years if the bill becomes law.

Meanwhile, protesters trying to save Obamacare rallied both inside and outside the Capitol on Wednesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden joined Democrats on the East Front of the Capitol to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the law's passage.

Trump Labor nominee Acosta frustrates Democrats by dodging questions at confirmation hearing

 (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s second nominee for Labor secretary, law school dean R. Alexander Acosta, frustrated Democrats at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday by dodging questions about how he would handle some key workplace rules enacted by the Obama administration.

But Acosta, a former Justice Department official, had strong support from Republicans during the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and he appeared on track for confirmation.

That was a sharp contrast to Trump’s first pick for the job, Southern California fast-food executive Andy Puzder, who withdrew last month after some GOP senators balked at voting for him amid a series of controversies. On Tuesday, Puzder said he is stepping down as chief executive of CKE Restaurants.

Acosta is a much more conventional pick than the outspoken and flamboyant Puzder. The dean of the law school at Florida International University in Miami since 2009, Acosta acted like a lawyer in cautiously answering some tough questions.

Trump transition communications were swept up in U.S. spying on foreign targets, Rep. Nunes says

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

U.S. intelligence agencies picked up communications involving members of the Trump transition team late last year and reports of the conversations were circulated within the government, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday.

"I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community collected information on U.S. individuals involved in the Trump transition," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) told reporters.

The eavesdropping appears to have been legal and inadvertently picked up Trump associates because they were communicating with individuals under government surveillance, Nunes suggested.

The surveillance was apparently unrelated to an ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign aides coordinated with Russian intelligence agencies that sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential race, Nunes said.

"Details about U.S. persons involved in the incoming administration with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reports," he said.

Under the law, identities of Americans whose communications are picked up by intelligence eavesdropping of foreign targets are supposed to be kept confidential unless the conversations relate to espionage or some other potential crime that warrants further investigation.

FBI Director James B. Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers testified to Nunes' committee on Monday that they had "no information" to back up President Trump's claims in several tweets this month that President Obama had ordered wiretaps against him.

Nunes and other Republicans used the five-hour hearing to argue that leaks of classified information, especially those involving U.S. surveillance, were a threat to national security and should be prosecuted.

They repeatedly cited the case of Michael Flynn, who was ousted as Trump's national security advisor last month after news reports disclosed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

The calls were picked up by U.S. surveillance targeting the Russian envoy, and a description of the contents were leaked to the Washington Post after the Justice Department warned the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail.

Nunes said "sources," whom he did not identify, provided him the information about communications intercepts involving Trump transition members.

 

In rebuff to high court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Supreme Court rules for children with autism

Supreme Court building in Washington (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Supreme Court building in Washington (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A unanimous Supreme Court strengthened the rights of nearly 7 million schoolchildren with disabilities Wednesday and did so by rejecting a lower standard set by Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.

The ruling, one of the most important of this term, came as President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is wrapping up his third day of testimony before a Senate committee.

Justices ruled for the parents of Endrew F., a Colorado boy with autism who pulled their son from the public school after his progress “essentially stalled.”

They enrolled him in a private academy that specialized in autism, where his behavior and learning improved markedly. They then sued the school district for a reimbursement, alleging a violation of the federal law that promises a “free appropriate public education” to children with disabilities.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the school district had not met its duty under the law. Children like Endrew F. have a right to an “educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable [them] to make progress,” he said.  And the learning program “must be appropriately ambitious in light of” the child’s capabilities.

This stand “is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimus’ test applied by the 10th Circuit," he said, including a 2008 opinion written by Gorsuch. Under that standard, a school need show only that it was providing a minimal special program with some level of benefit.

The high court did not mention Gorsuch’s opinion in the earlier case, but it reversed a 10th Circuit ruling that had relied on it.

Asked about the issue on Wednesday, Gorsuch said he was a part of a unanimous three-judge panel that had sought to follow a Supreme Court standard set in 1982.

Several liberal groups described the court's decision as a direct rebuke of Gorsuch.

However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) noted that Gorsuch was not part of the three-judge panel whose ruling was directly reversed in the court’s decision in Endrew F. vs. Douglas County.

Media Watch: On the Right

About that stinging WSJ editorial targeting Trump

 (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

President Trump claimed that his phones were tapped by President Obama ahead of last year’s election.

False.

It’s an assertion first debunked last week by a bipartisan Senate panel, then this week by FBI Director James B. Comey.

Naturally, one might assume Trump would walk back those comments – someway, somehow. But that’s not Trump. It’s never been his style.

Instead, at least for now, the White House is not offering much else in terms of comment, even as some on Capitol Hill are calling on Trump to apologize to Obama.

And even some conservative media appear fed up with the unfounded claim.

Here are some of today’s headlines:

A president’s credibility (The Wall Street Journal)      

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Wall Street Journal, is friends with Trump.

That did not prevent the editorial board from delivering a powerful blow to Trump, assailing him on Wednesday for holding on to his claims that Obama wiretapped his phones.

“He has offered no evidence for his claim, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence," wrote the editorial board. "Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims."

Ouch.

And some Trump allies are feeling the sting.

"It does hurt," Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas said on CNN when asked about the editorial. "It hurts a lot not only for my party but for people to have a sobering look at what others are saying."

Democrats always loved the Russians (Rush Limbaugh)

Even as an FBI investigation is well underway into possible collusion between Trump aides and Russians during the campaign, many conservatives have dismissed it as a witch hunt by Democrats.

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is one of them.

“Given that the Democrat party has no history of disliking the Soviet Union, the Democrat party has no history of opposing the Soviet Union or Russia, we are being asked now to believe that the Russians wished to influence a U.S. presidential election," Limbaugh argued. 

He added, wryly, “This master stroke of statecraft by Putin was designed, however, to bring to power a man, Donald J. Trump, who has pledged to rebuild the United States militarily and economically.”

AHCA earns backing of prominent pro-life groups (TownHall)

The big vote is looming on Thursday, and – as of now – the Republican plan to replace Obamacare doesn’t appear to have enough votes to pass.

Still, some groups, such as the staunchly anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee, are backing it.

This piece notes the group recently penned a letter to members of Congress touting its support.

The group, in its letter, voiced support for the bill because it “contains the following essential provisions: 1) prevents federal tax credits from being used for plans that pay for abortions, 2) preserves non-taxed employer-provided health plans, 3) postpones the 'Cadillac tax' until 2025 and 4) eliminates roughly 89% of federal Planned Parenthood funding for the next year.”

We’ll see if it passes on Thursday.

Feinstein: Gorsuch dodges specifics 'like no one I have seen before'

 (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
(Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Conservatives are enamored with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch because he has declared himself a staunch originalist, much like the man he would replace on the court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Gorsuch to articulate how far he would go in pursuing a philosophy that rejects the idea that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that evolves with society.

Feinstein demanded to know whether Gorsuch’s view of originalism leaves room for gay rights, women’s rights or the right to abortion. She told of having to sentence women to prison for abortion when she was a member of the California Women’s Parole Board, of suicides of women who could not get abortions when they were illegal and of cases of women passing around a donation plate so friends could travel to Tijuana for the procedure.

“We are still fighting for equal pay, equal work,” Feinstein went on. “And it goes on and on, and as women take their place in the workplace, in society … life changes. And the originalism of the days when the Constitution was written … don’t bring somebody forward, they bring them backward.”

Gorsuch sought to assure Feinstein that “no one is looking to return us to horse-and-buggy days. We're trying to interpret the law faithfully, taking principles that are enduring and a Constitution that was meant to last ages and apply it and interpret it to today’s problems.” He pointed to cases, like one involving searches of homes with heat-seeking devices, where originalist judges seek to invoke “neutral principles, the law to apply it to current realities, not to drag us back to a past, but to move forward together as judges applying the law neutrally.”

Feinstein was not persuaded. She expressed frustration at how vague Gorsuch has been on every issue that might come before the court, saying, “You have been very much able to avoid any specificity, like no one I have seen before.”

When Gorsuch repeated his assertion that he is loath to overturn precedent — which presumably would include the precedent established in Roe vs. Wade that women have a right to abortion — Feinstein pointed out how she has heard similar remarks from previous GOP nominees who then became anti-abortion votes once on the court.

“For the life of me, I really don’t know when you’re there what you’re doing to do. … As you say, this isn’t text. This is real life. And young women take everything for granted today. And all of that could be struck out with one decision.”

CongressObamacareWhite House

After a day of trying to close the deal, Trump remains short on healthcare votes

Despite President Trump’s personal appeals to lawmakers, the fate of the Republican healthcare bill remained uncertain Tuesday, as the fraught relationship between the president and congressional Republicans faces what could be a defining test.

“Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks,” Trump warned lawmakers, bluntly telling fellow Republicans that failure to pass the bill to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act could cost the GOP its majorities in the House and Senate.

The morning strategy session at the Capitol was the first time in his two months as president that Trump met with almost the full House Republican Conference that was elected with him in November. The membership reflects the disparate coalition of Republicans who aligned to make him their standard-bearer last year.

The question for the party now is whether that ideologically diverse group can govern.

Tillerson meets with coalition nations to discuss strategy against Islamic State

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies during a confirmation hearing in January. (Associated Press)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies during a confirmation hearing in January. (Associated Press)

The Trump administration will publicly assess its strategy against Islamic State for the first time Wednesday in a State Department summit with the 68 nations in the U.S.-led coalition against the militant group.

The meeting, hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, comes days after visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi won assurances from President Trump about more U.S. support in the war against Islamic State that has been raging for nearly three years.

In his opening remarks, Tillerson said the coalition had managed to reclaim large parts of Iraq and Syria from the militants even as intense fighting continues in some areas.

“Our end goal in this phase is the regional elimination of ISIS through military force,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group.

In a speech to Congress last month, Trump said he had asked the Defense Department for a plan to “demolish and defeat” Islamic State, but he has not rolled out a new strategy.

The Pentagon has about 5,200 troops in Iraq and 1,000 in Syria. They rely on Iraqi security forces and Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq, and U.S.-backed rebel militias in Syria, to carry out combat operations, while the U.S. and its allies provide intelligence, launch airstrikes and fire artillery to support the ground attacks.

Over the last year, the combined attacks have pushed out the Sunni militants from most major cities in Iraq. Despite a five-month U.S.-backed assault, heavy fighting is still underway to retake the group's remaining stronghold in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

The challenge is tougher in Syria, where the Pentagon has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of mostly Kurdish rebel groups that operates chiefly in northern Syria. Preparations are underway for an assault on the Islamic States’ self-declared capital of Raqqah.

Long-term challenges will be to rebuild the cities and towns destroyed by Islamic State during their occupation, or by coalition bombardments that sought to dislodge them.

Tillerson will ask other coalition nations to invest in the recaptured areas and to help provide humanitarian aid and other resources for the millions of people displaced in the fighting.

“We will continue to facilitate the return of people to their homes and work with local political leadership,” he said Wednesday.

“They will provide stable and fair governance, rebuild infrastructure and provide essential services,” he added. “We will use our diplomatic presence on the ground to facilitate channels of dialogue between local leadership and coalition partners.”

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch says defending waterboarding was just part of his job as a lawyer

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday returned to aggressively questioning Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch about his apparent defense of waterboarding and other such interrogation tactics while he was working in the administration of George W. Bush.

Her questions focused on a set of talking points the nominee had prepared for former Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales in 2005 that asked whether “aggressive interrogation techniques employed by the administration yielded any valuable information.” In the margin, Gorsuch had written, “Yes.”

Watch live: Confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch

Gorsuch demurred on Tuesday when Feinstein pressed him on what information he had showing that the techniques were effective, a finding that was contradicted by a 7,000-page report congressional investigators published on the issue. He asked for time to review the talking points in question. 

When Feinstein brought the issue up again Wednesday, Gorsuch was prepared with an answer. He said he didn’t necessarily have any evidence to back up what was in the document.

“That was the position the clients were telling us,” he said. “I was a lawyer. My job was as an advocate. We were dealing with detainee litigation.”

Feinstein was unimpressed.

“It seems to me that people who advise have an obligation to find the truth in these situations,” said Feinstein, who helped lead an exhaustive bipartisan probe of American use of the torture tactics. “When we looked into it, we really saw the horrendous nature of what went on. … This is America. It is not what we stand for.”

Under fire over Russia investigation, White House officials choose to change the subject

 (Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)
(Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

After the heads of the FBI and the National Security Agency denied President Trump’s claim that then-President Obama had wiretapped him, Trump’s Twitter account provided the best clue to how the White House would respond: Tuesday morning, it was silent on the subject.

Trump had started the day Monday with a tweet storm defending himself against allegations that his campaign had cooperated with Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election. He’s spent days quadrupling down on his unsubstantiated insistence that Obama had surveilled Trump Tower in New York.

But that sometimes-manic flurry of counterpunches has done little if anything to help the president, who has been frustrated by how controversies get in the way of his agenda, even as his own words often keep those controversies alive.

Some of Trump’s advisors think House Republicans could have done a more forceful job at Monday’s hearing of defending the president. Democrats spent much of the hearing laying out the circumstantial evidence for improper contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials.

Rather than lash out or try to rebut the Democrats’ case, however, White House aides have counseled the president to change the subject and talk about his sales pitch to members of Congress on healthcare and his Supreme Court nominee.

How the phony conspiracy theory over wiretapping caught fire

When Michael Flynn, President Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, resigned last month, Mark Levin was outraged.

Not because Flynn had falsely denied speaking with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions before Trump took office. Rather, the conservative talk radio host was furious that U.S. surveillance had picked up Flynn’s venture into freelance diplomacy.

“How many phone calls of Donald Trump, if any, have been intercepted by the administration and recorded by the Obama administration?” Levin demanded on his program, which reaches millions nationwide. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real scandal.”

With that, what began as rumors and unverified accounts percolating through right-wing media coalesced into a wild conspiracy theory adopted by a president with an itchy Twitter finger, a penchant for intrigue and eagerness to embrace information — however sketchy — that reinforces, rather than tests, his beliefs.

Trump’s unfounded claim that President Obama had wiretapped his telephone ricocheted throughout the country, shook Washington and stunned disbelieving U.S. allies. The fallout continues to rattle the embryonic Trump White House.

The GOP drive to repeal Obamacare could snuff out a quiet revolution in how U.S. cities care for their poor

 (Denver Post)
(Denver Post)

Over the last four years, this city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains has quietly transformed how it cares for its poorest residents.

As hundreds of thousands of Coloradans gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, known as or Obamacare, Denver built an extensive new system to keep patients healthy, hiring dozens of mental health specialists and nurses, expanding dental clinics and launching efforts to help patients manage debilitating illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Republican legislation to roll back Obamacare — slated to be voted on Thursday in the House — threatens to not only strip Medicaid coverage from millions of poor Americans, but also to take away the funding that has allowed communities like Denver to build better systems to care for them.

That is fueling rising alarm in cities such as Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Charleston, W.Va., and Boston, where safety net hospitals have also used the ACA’s insurance expansion to take on underlying challenges that make lower-income Americans sick, including unsafe housing, poor diet and untreated mental illness.

In Denver, the loss of coverage would be devastating, said Dr. Bill Burman, who for the past year served as interim chief executive of Denver Health, the city’s public healthcare system. “The insurance expansion has been absolutely critical to strengthening how we treat our patients. … I don’t think we could absorb those kinds of cuts without paring back.”

Particularly frustrating for Burman and other public health leaders around the country is the prospect that coverage may be stripped away amid growing evidence that this new approach is having an impact.

Denver Health, for example, has seen a slowdown in the growth of emergency room use since the coverage expansion began in 2014, with visits up just 4% between 2013 and 2016. By contrast, ER visits rose 15% in the previous three years.

Watch live: Confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch

Media Watch: On the Right

Some right-wing media sites under investigation for possible Russia ties

 (Bao Dandan / Tribune News Service)
(Bao Dandan / Tribune News Service)

The investigation is well underway into any potential collusion between President Trump’s campaign aides and Russian officials during last year’s campaign.

A day after FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed the investigation, Trump and his allies are pushing back – forcefully.

Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to Trump, told Fox News on Tuesday that the investigation “has nothing to show for it.”

Conservative media, much like the administration, have down-played the investigation, and now some right-wing outlets are facing scrutiny themselves.

Here are today’s headlines:

FBI’s Russian-influence probe includes a look at Breitbart, InfoWars news sites (McClatchy)

OK, McClatchy is not considered so-called conservative news.

But this report focuses on the FBI looking into right-wing websites like Breitbart and InfoWars to see if they played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories that favored Trump’s presidential bid.

In recent months, intelligence officials have confirmed that Russia did seek to influence the 2016 election by, among other things, hacking into emails at the Democratic National Committee.

McClatchy, citing anonymous sources, reports “operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as ‘bots,’ to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories.”

The story generated a response from Alex Jones, who runs InfoWars.

“I don’t personally take this as a threat … I’m threatened for the country,” he said on his radio show. “I mean if the Russians want to secure our borders, cut our taxes, not have us go bankrupt, rebuild our military, block radical Islam — well then, hell, I’m a Russian agent! But I’m not.”

Democrats break out political playbook against Gorsuch in hearing (Weekly Standard)

His Senate confirmation hearings are underway and Democrats are ready.

The piece argues that Neil M. Gorsuch, whom Trump tapped as his Supreme Court nominee, is walking into a “fray of flying elbows,” mostly thrown by Democrats.

“The Senate minority's number two and committee member Dick Durbin said Gorsuch was part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch,” writes Chris Deaton.

A year ago, former President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court position left vacant following the death of Antonin Scalia. However, Senate Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, refused to grant Garland a hearing.

Among Democratic topics of discussion for Trump's nominee: Gorsuch's past writings on executive power,  Roe vs. Wade, and his lower-court opinion in Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius for its application to Obamacare's contraception mandate, to name a few.

Trump counters media narrative with victims of Obamacare (American Spectator)

The consensus is that, well, the House Republican plan to replace Obamacare isn’t perfect.

A report released last week by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that by 2026 nearly 24 million people would be uninsured. Some GOP governors have castigated the plan for its cuts to Medicaid.

But as this piece highlights, Trump has sought to find people who have suffered under Obamacare.

“There also is scant mention of the Americans who stand to lose coverage as healthcare providers drop out of the individual market or who pay their premiums but don’t see doctors because their plans’ high deductibles are prohibitive,” writes Debra J. Saunders. “There is little mention of the 6.5 million Americans who preferred to pay a penalty last year rather than purchase their own policies.”

Sen. Al Franken brands Gorsuch a partisan and 'absurd'

 (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

As Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch asserts that he is beholden to no ideology or partisan agenda, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are working hard to make the case that is not true.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota argued it most effectively on Tuesday afternoon.

He relentlessly sparred with Gorsuch about the nominee’s dissent in the case of a trucking company employee who was fired after abandoning his cargo when no one came to help him during a breakdown, and he was stuck for hours in subzero temperatures. Gorsuch came down on the side of the company.

“I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it,” said Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" performer and writer.  “And it makes me question your judgment.”

He grilled Gorsuch on what the nominee would do if stuck in the same predicament as the trucking employee, who Franken said was beginning to experience symptoms of hypothermia.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his shoes,” said Gorsuch, who had earlier told the panel that he felt constrained by the existing law at the time of the case to decide for the company, regardless of whether he empathized for the employee’s predicament. “I don’t blame him at all for doing what he did do. I thought a lot about this case. I totally empathize.”

Franken shot back. “I would have done exactly what he did,” Franken said. “And I think everyone here would have done exactly what he did. And I think it is an easy answer.”

The senator also grew impatient as Gorsuch recycled responses from earlier in the day that he is completely apolitical as a judge and has no place weighing in on political issues. He repeatedly cut the nominee off while building his case that Gorsuch had strong political opinions and ties to partisans, reading from exchanges with high-level Republicans during the administration of George W. Bush that suggested he was a fiercely loyal Republican foot soldier.

Then Franken turned to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservatives in Washington, where Franken said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior advisor Stephen K. Bannon pointed to the Gorsuch nomination as a central part of their plan to “deconstruct the administrative state” and roll back 40 years of regulatory law.

“Are you comfortable with your nomination being described in such transactional terms?” Franken asked Gorsuch.

“There is a lot about this process that makes me uncomfortable,” Gorsuch said.

CongressObamacareWhite House

Trump didn't quite close the deal with House GOP on Obamacare repeal bill

President Trump might not have quite closed the deal Tuesday when he swooped over to Capitol Hill to lobby reluctant Republicans to get behind the GOP plan to replace Obamacare.

The most conservative Republican lawmakers remained deeply skeptical despite the president's hard sell during a morning meeting in the Capitol basement.

The momentum Speaker Paul D. Ryan hoped to gather ahead of Thursday's vote left leaders scrambling to shore up support.

"I haven't heard anyone who changed their mind after this morning," said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who remains opposed. 

"The president’s a persuasive guy and he’s well liked," said Davidson, adding that most of the opponents "worked hard to see our president elected."

But he added, "I didn’t run on a pretty slogan like 'repeal and replace.' I ran on fixing the problem."

Trump warned House Republicans they would lose their majority in the next election if they failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The president's speech was part pep talk, part finger pointing, and he singled out Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, joking, "Oh, Mark, I'm gonna come after you," according to a source in the room.

But even amid the nervous laughter, the most conservative lawmakers seemed ready to take that risk.

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), who said the session was his first time meeting with the president, was taken aback by Trump's behavior. It did not win his vote.

"For me, I'm raised in the South. I’ve learned to say thank you, no thank you," said Jones, a veteran congressman often at odds with his party. "That’s no way. You shouldn't single anybody out. They're not up here to represent a president or an administration. They're up here to represent the people of their district."

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said he would not be moved by such tactics and skipped Trump's talk for an unrelated meeting on water issues important to his state. He is voting no.

"I don’t care who says it. I’ve lived this," said Gosar, a dentist, who said he feels the bill is being arbitrarily rushed. "I'm tired of this place: You got to pass something because there’s some little deadline? Do the right thing."

Republican leaders can afford to lose no more than about 20 votes and still pass the bill with a simple majority.

Outside groups were adding pressure Tuesday, with the conservative Heritage Action opposing the bill but the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce supporting it — and both promising the vote would be counted in their annual scorecards of lawmakers' performances.

The right-leaning Club for Growth started running ads in the districts of 10 Republican lawmakers who had expressed reservations about the bill, pushing them to vote against it.

After making late changes to the bill to attract more support, Republican leaders want to build momentum ahead of Thursday's vote.

They've punted many of the toughest issues — including a promise to boost tax credits to help older Americans pay for healthcare — to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised to take up the bill as soon as next week.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the late changes were no better than "putting a fresh coat of paint on an old jalopy" and suggested Republicans were "walking the plank" by taking votes on a bill that will not pass the Senate.

U.S. skips regional human rights panel examining reports of abuse by U.S. officials

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

The Trump administration did not attend a regional human rights hearing that examined how U.S. policies are hurting asylum claims or triggering other alleged immigration abuses.

For decades, U.S. administrations have enthusiastically supported the Inter-American Human Rights Commission as it defended rights throughout the hemisphere, especially in repressive countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

But no U.S. official attended Tuesday's hearing, which examined Trump's executive actions to restrict the admission of refugees and restrict travel from six mostly-Muslim nations.

The commission also heard cases from the Obama administration involving U.S. Border Patrol agents accused of turning back migrants seeking to cross the border to apply for asylum.

Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said State officials decided not to attend on the advice of government lawyers who said any testimony by them could harm pending litigation.

"This was deemed not appropriate by our legal experts," Toner said.

He said the United States has "tremendous respect" for the commission's role "in safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the hemisphere, including the United States."

Human rights advocates said only the administration's proposed travel ban has been blocked in federal court, not the border cases, and a U.S. delegate would not have to give testimony but could simply observe.

Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, which has worked on some of the border cases, said the U.S. absence sent a message that the Trump administration was uninterested in how its policies affected human rights.

"It is alarming because [the commission] is one of the last resorts for many of these people," she said.

The commission is the autonomous human-rights branch of the 35-nation Organization of American States, the hemisphere's most important alliance.

It was the second time this week that the U.S. skipped an international human rights forum.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced it was boycotting a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva because of what it described as an anti-Israel bias in the discussion of Israeli abuse of Palestinians.

Toner said comparing the two events was "apples and oranges."

 

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